"I think our kids in some respects are trying too hard," Coach John Cohen said. "We're gonna be fine. I'd much rather be playing well a month from now than right now. And obviously we're not playing well right now."
Not at all. A Bulldog squad that expected much-improved pitching and defense in 2010 had plenty of problems with both Saturday. Defensive breakdowns resulted in five official errors with a handful more failures in execution. And if erratic glovework put the pitching under greater pressure, the moundsmen had their own issues against a sharp Lion batting order. The combination of the two factors was more than MSU could make up otherwise.
"We still have yet to put together a complete nine innings so far," said LF Luke Adkins. "That's something we've really got to work on."
Then again work wasn't the problem, based on Cohen's review of pre-game scouting and warm-up drills. Nor was effort…unless it really was in the opposite sense. "Our kids are really trying hard, instead of letting the game come to them."
At the same time the Lions deserved credit for playing just as hard and much more efficiently Saturday, most obviously in the field with a lone error. That was a wild pickoff throw in the second inning and it did no damage to the team or to starter Brandon Efferson. The righthander did get charged with three Bulldog runs and gave up nine of the eleven base hits. But his offense—aided and abetted of course by those Dog fielding fouls—more than made up for it.
Efferson (2-0) worked 6.0 innings to earn the win with seven strikeouts and two walks. Justin Schneider, fourth hurler of the Lion day, picked up a save by working one-third of the last inning.
Freshman Chris Stratton took the loss, evening his record at 1-1. His second college outing was not nearly as sharp as the first as Stratton was charged with five hits, five runs, and a couple of walks with no strikeouts. Three of his runs were unearned though. Classmate Chad Girodo took over with two outs in the third inning and put in another five full frames with two runs (one earned) on five hits, a walk and three strikeouts.
It took one Lion at-bat to show it was going to be a long defensive afternoon. Make that two, because the first pair to swing both reached on fielding errors by 2B Nick Vickerson and SS Jonathan Ogden. A one-out fly ball by Josh Cryer scored Cass Hargis. State answered in the bottom of the first as Adkins' fly ball to short center went off the diving defender's glove for a double. With two down C Cody Freeman grounded deep to third base for an infield single and RBI.
Southeastern didn't need help scoring in their second as Brock Hebert doubled and came home on a single by #9 batter Trey Martin. The Bulldogs again responded, this time with DH Russ Sneed singling and Ogden turning a one-bagger into two with hard running. Efferson got a couple of outs before Adkins came back up and slapped a hot-hopper that second baseman Hebert couldn't handle. The base hit produced two RBI and a Bulldog lead.
It didn't last long though as consecutive Lion hits opened the third and a bunt moved both up in position to score. Cody Gougler tied the game again with his ground-out to second that plated Justin Boudreaux, and a low throw by Ogden let Phillip Freeman reach as well as continued the inning. Chad Livingston made the most of the chance with a drive to left-centerfield. CF Brent Brownlee had bee playing the other gap due to the prevailing stiff wind and had too far to run. He dove anyway and paid the price with a banged-up shoulder.
The ball glanced off leather for a two-run double and 5-3 Lion lead. Another Vickerson boot and a walk to load the bases meant the top of the order was back up, with Girodo inheriting the jam. The lefty rolled one to shortstop for an inning-ending force at second base.
Southeastern made it 6-3 on a single, steal, and RBI hit from Hebert in the fifth. That run was earned; their sixth-inning tally was unearned as another fielding miscue set up the opportunity. With Boudreaux on first base and two outs Cryer's bouncer was mishandled by 3B Jet Butler. Gougler made it hurt with a single to leftfield for the four-run lead.
That was plenty protection for Efferson, who helped himself by striking out Adkins in the fourth with two Dogs on. A Cody Freeman double in the MSU fifth went for nought as Collins struck out and Butler was left stranded in the sixth on a fly ball. Lion lefty Jordan Hymel took over to throw the seventh, leaving Adkins on second after an infield hit and steal with two strikeouts. He walked a pair on in the MSU eighth around fly balls and was behind sub-CF Jaron Shepherd 3-0 before coming back for a couple of strikes and foul-pop out.
If the Lions needed any further cushion it came in the last inning. C.C. Watson began the frame by hitting Livingston, who advanced in-turns on a bunt and a wild pitch. Greg Houston replaced Watson but with two runners on Hebert laid down a bunt that pulled first baseman Powers in. So Houston had to run all the way to the bag and allow lead runner Gougler to make it 8-3.
"Any time there's a possible squeeze or push with a runner on third base you're supposed to elevate the pitch, and we threw it right down the center," Cohen said. "We work on these things so, so, so much and when it doesn't happen in a game you're frustrated. In some ways I think we're too prepared."
Hymel lost his chance at a save though as after a leadoff walk in the ninth SELa called in Josh Janway. He also issued a walk and negated it by rolled a double-play off Powers' bat. Still another walk kept the game going long enough for Collins to drive in Adkins. And Freeman would score on a wild pitch to rouse at least some home-team hope until Sneed lined a shot to the centerfielder.
"We committed a lot of errors, that's defensively what killed us today," said Adkins, who could not enjoy a three-hit, two-run, two-RBI afternoon as a result. Midway of the affair Cohen called the team together between innings after an uncharged mental error as Adkins did not throw the ball in promptly after a SELa single. Adkins said it was motivation purposes, though the coach explained it somewhat otherwise. Cohen did note that much of the day infield defense was tentative playing the ground balls; then late in the game Ogden and Vickerson, both juco transfers, made some sparkling plays on tougher grounders.
"You see, they made it look easy late in the game. But when the game is right in our face we kind of back away from it and don't put the glove in a good spot. I think Jonathan Ogden is one of the great shortstops I've seen play in college baseball in a long time, the only thing he doesn't have is experience at the Division I level and when he gets that he's going to be really good. Nick Vickerson is the same way, I think he's going to be a very, very good player. Just neither one had set foot on a Division I field. So I think when they get used to it and calm down a little bit I think they're going to create some double plays and they're going to be fine."
Annoyingly the Bulldogs did have one more base hit than the winners, 11 to 10. Powers had a rough 0-of-5 day yet only the wind kept him from smacking a fifth-inning homer over left-centerfield. And in the ninth his two-on, no-out grounder was well-struck too. "A foot either way," Cohen noted. "But we don't need to put ourselves in that situation, we need to have better at-bats throughout the course of the game.
"I know we'll get there. We just have some people who have never played Division I baseball and they're hurting us right now. We just need to keep battling and competing and I know these guys will come around."
The shoulder injury to Brownlee—who missed most of last weekend's series with illness—means the outfield will shuffle for Sunday's 1:30 game. A week ago senior lefty Tyler Whitney got the Sunday start; Cohen would not commit to that for tomorrow just yet. "They're mostly right-handed so we might go with a righthanded pitcher. Our bullpen is in good shape, we haven't used several guys."